by Rafaël Newman in 3QuarksDaily: The month of May begins and ends with festivals of rebirth—at least here in Zurich, where May Day, the “Revolutionary First of May,” is a statutory holiday, while Ascension, the commemoration of Jesus’s foundational transubstantiation, having been retained as a feast day by the local Protestant reformers, is routinely observed on the last Thursday of the month. May thus boasts, at its head and tail, the celebrations of redemptive narratives canonized by the master transformational discourses of the West, the Marxist and the Christian, with a new worker’s world arising from the ashes of the old at one end, and the materially murdered Messiah resurrected as a transcendent, immortal, spiritual force at the other, Hegel spinning in his grave between them. And then of course, right in the middle of this median month in the vernal quarter of the year, the season of rejuvenation par excellence, there falls the culmination of yet another chronicle of presumed redemption and rebirth, its roots intertwined with both of those master discourses, the revolutionary and the religious: the anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel on May 14, 1948—but that’s another story.
In the German-speaking world, as in many other parts of Europe, the coming of May is also traditionally associated with a pre-Christian, pre-Communist fertility rite, observed with dances, maypoles, and bonfires, rituals shot through with the theme of rebirth, whether spiritual, as in the commemoration of the coming of Christianity to the pagan German lands on Walpurgisnacht, or physical, with more or less explicit invitations to procreation.
A popular German folk song, “Alles neu macht der Mai” (May remakes the world anew), to a text by Hermann Adam von Kamp (1796-1867), celebrates the splendors of spring in the northern hemisphere in a naturalist-romantic style that never quite decides whether it is animist or monotheist: the singer’s spirit rejoices with all of creation (“May remakes the world anew / cheers the soul and sets it free”) as young and old alike recline on Mother Earth (“the mossy floor folds great and small / to its tender bosom close”). A pedagogue and children’s book author, von Kamp skilfully interweaves a pious reverence with the burgeoning sensuality of his charges. And as it happens, “Alles neu macht der Mai” shares a tune with another children’s song, “Hänschen Klein” (Little Hans), in which a young boy ventures out into the world, much to the distress of his mother, in a sort of second birth as an individual subject. (This conjunction feels of particular significance to me, since my own birthday also falls on the very middle day of the month of May—but that, too, is another story.)
In Switzerland generally, where the originally fierce and rebellious May Day has been rendered a quaint relic by the public-private partnership model, a tacit agreement to avoid labor disputes in the name of a lucrative social peace, and the exigencies of serving the world’s sub rosa banking needs while keeping a firm hand on the safe-haven franc in the interests of an all-important exporting industry, the month of May passes intentionally without event until its final weekend, when the post-Christian Swiss society relishes the opportunity afforded by a Thursday holiday to “make a bridge,” and enjoy four days off. The long weekend at Ascension, when the weather is growing mild enough to gather outdoors and when the mountain passes have traditionally become viable once again, is thus also a good time to stage an international event, such as the Solothurner Literaturtage (SLT). This year, the annual literary festival, held in the riverside town of Solothurn in northwestern Switzerland, is itself celebrating a sort of rebirth, having been constrained in 2021, by virological rather than by meteorological conditions, to an online version.